Reasons vary for surge in home runs, but MLB is not complaining
Anyone who watches Aaron Judge destroy baseballs with regularity doesn’t need conspiracy theories or statistical formulas to decode the reason he generates freakish exit velocities and mind-bending distance. He’s huge. At a muscular 6-7, 282 pounds, Judge has the laws of physics on his side. When that degree of force connects with a baseball speeding at 95-plus mph, it’s no mystery what happens next.
Judge, who hit his major league-leading 26th home run Saturday, is a very rare combination of size and strength. But the timing of his fence-busting barrage happens to coincide with the incredible long-ball proliferation throughout Major League Baseball this season, a year that is on pace to obliterate the sport’s records for home runs.
These herculean feats aren’t limited to the larger-than-life Judge. Dodgers rookie Cody Bellinger, the National League leader, had launched 22 homers in only 55 games through Friday, putting him on a pace to finish with 56 even though he wasn’t called up until April 25.
The Reds’ Scooter Gennett, a 5-10, 185-pound second baseman who never hit more than 14 homers in a season, smacked four in a single game June 6. Three days earlier, seven players hit grand slams, an MLB record.
But these are not merely isolated incidents. Check out the numbers. Through Friday, MLB averaged an unprecedented 1.27 home runs per game, a step up from 1.16 last year, a leap from 1.01 in 2015 and an Olympic pole vault from 0.86 in 2014.
Overall, MLB had a total of 5,610 home runs last season, a few mighty swings behind the record of 5,693 in 2000.
And this year? At the current pace, MLB will smash the previous mark with a whopping 6,217 — an increase of more than 2,000 from only two years ago.
Now everyone wants to know why.
Slight variations from year to year are expected, with some trends stretching over longer periods. “Cyclical,” as Angels manager Mike Scioscia described it. But this massive uptick is more like a tidal wave, surging out of the blue and beyond comparison.
Some have suggested that a doctored, bouncier, “juiced” baseball might be the culprit. Others point to the all-or-nothing approach of this generation’s hitters.
Most times, however, the simplest explanation rings true. People in the game look around and see players who are bigger and stronger — or at least as big and as strong as they were two decades ago.
Angels pitching coach Charles Nagy had six seasons of at least 15 wins during his 13 years in the Indians’ rotation, a stretch that fell between 1990 and 2002 — the teeth of the steroids era.
When Nagy was asked this past week about the sizable jump in home runs, he replied, “They hit a lot of home runs when I pitched, too.”
And does he think it will continue? “As long as guys keep passing drug tests,” he said.
Nagy’s final appearance was in 2003, the same year MLB began survey testing for performance-enhancing drugs, with the penalty phase not starting until the following season. In 2013, MLB implemented blood tests for HGH, but the recent busts have been for more archaic steroids, such as the nandrolone that cost the Pirates’ Starling Marte 80 games this season.
This is not meant to be an indictment of anyone. MLB is proud of its diligent PED-screening program, and players are tested more frequently than ever. But given the game’s checkered history in this area, it’s worth considering. Alex Rod riguez was suspended for the entire 2014 season without a positive test. He was banned because of an incriminating paper trail.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi listed a handful of potential reasons for the avalanche of home runs, and the size of players figured prominently. He specifically mentioned Starlin Castro, the Yankees’ 6-2, 230-pound second baseman, who hit a career-high 21 homers last season and is on pace for 28 this year.
“Fifty years ago,” Girardi said, “that was a big man.”
But even the not-so-big men are doing big-guy damage. For instance, Brett Gardner, who hit his 14th home run Friday night. At this rate, he’ll finish with 30-plus. Gardner’s career high is 17, in 2014. Does that signal a switch to more of an uppercut approach? Or is Gardner, like many of his somewhat smaller brethren, benefiting from a juiced baseball? That depends on whom you ask.
Some have said the seams of the 2017 baseball are smaller, resulting in less drag — and the ball certainly behaves livelier — but CC Sabathia disagreed. The former Cy Young winner, who in his 17th season was off to one of his better starts (7-2, 3.46 ERA) before being sidelined with a hamstring injury, said: “I haven’t felt any difference. It feels the same to me. I just think it’s one of those years. A couple of years ago, it was all pitching, and now it’s come back around. It goes up and down.”
But the juiced-ball theory definitely has gained momentum, spurred in part by a June 14 story done by The Ringer that features research by sabermetrician Mitchel Lichtman, who tested baseballs after the 2015 All-Star break, when the spike in home runs began. According to these tests, this recent batch has a greater coefficient of restitution (COR) — or in layman’s terms, they’re bouncier, causing an estimated 7.1 feet of additional distance.
That said, there is a margin of error involved, and still some debate over how much of an impact these physical differences make. Also, was the manufacturing process altered on purpose? MLB insists the baseballs are identical to the ones they’ve always used — or at least within the allowable range of deviation.
“As a quality control effort, we routinely conduct inseason and offseason testing of baseballs in conjunction with our consultants at UMass Lowell to ensure that they meet our specifications,” commissioner Rob Manfred told Yahoo Sports last week. “All recent test results have been within the specifications. In addition, we used a third-party consultant to test whether the baseball had any impact on offense in recent years, and he found no evidence.”
Even so, Manfred acknowledges that the power surge is a boost to the sport’s popularity, so it’s not as if the commissioner wants to see this trend reversed.
Next month, during the All-Star Game festivities at Marlins Park, the Home Run Derby will feature the game’s most prolific sluggers, likely Judge and Bellinger among them.
Seeing dozens of baseballs clear the fences at eye-popping distances used to be labeled a special event, a once-a-year spectacle.
Now it’s called Thursday.